Sunday, November 30, 2014

Planning a trip to Japan with the best local restaurants and experiences

Good morning from Manila.

So the other night in Tokyo, living a Travelife, there I was online on a message thread created for one of our Travelife Sri Lanka groups.

We were all joking around while discussing our upcoming trip to Japan next year.

This group had such fun together in Sri Lanka that they want to travel together again, and the destination is really immaterial as long as it's convenient and enjoyable.

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Then someone said "Japan" on the evening we all had dinner in Manila before I flew to Morocco with another group of our readers and friends.

And since then, I've been all over Morocco, accumulating three very large and heavy suitcases along the way, and halfway around the world twice. 

But I've also been busy planning a fun and interesting Travelife to Japan for them that'll be just for themselves and their friends.

In Morocco last week,
with some of our dear Travelife readers and friends


I said: "This will be off the beaten track Japan, okay? No touristy things like Tsukiji fish market, Maisen tonkatsu or Zakuro for shabu-shabu."

I stressed: "I'm going to take you to really nice local places that are hard to get to if you don't have a Japanese speaker with you."

And it's not just about being able to speak Japanese either. It's about knowing where to go and how to discern what the group will enjoy out of hundreds of possible choices.


Fortunately, everyone is game and most have already committed to joining before even seeing an itinerary, knowing that Japan is one of the destinations we at Travelife know like the back of our hand.

They also know that anything we plan will be very good. We are Travelife, after all. "Good" is just never good enough for us.


Join us for 
a Travelife to Japan 2015

The ultimate Tokyo & Yokohama food trip
June 6 to 11, 2015

Make mine Hokkaido
July 3 to 8, 2015

The hidden Japan
August 29 to September 3, 2015

Email for more details.



This trip, scheduled for next year, will have a little bit of everything -- including lunch at the best tonkatsu in Japan, which is actually in a local restaurant in the middle of rice fields on the way to Mount Fuji, and dinner at one of these restaurants that serve Japan's who's who but who only get business by word of mouth. 

No advertising, no signs.

But everyone from Japan's richest man to the top sumo wrestler eats there. And Robert Parker's been there, too, driving straight from the airport and bringing his own bottles of wine.


And after my wonderful stay in one of Japan's top ryokan this weekend, I'm thinking about including an onsen ryokan stay as well.

Basically booking an entire ryokan for a Travelife.

When we plan a Travelife, we really put our heart and soul into it because we want our dear readers and friends to truly experience the joys of a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife. 


"Best trip ever."

Join the next Travelife to Morocco
April 18 - 27, 2015


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Autumn in Japan and a wonderful hot springs weekend at one of Japan's best ryokan

The beautiful open-air bath

In Japan yesterday, living a Travelife, we checked into one of the country's most historical and luxurious hot springs inns.

It's one of the most tasteful places I've seen in Japan, and it's very stylish and luxurious in an understated way.

This photo was taken yesterday

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The art on the walls are all contemporary, but these are by some of the hottest contemporary artists in Asia. There's nothing so obvious as an Impressionist masterpiece or a statement piece here.

In fact, all the art blends so well with the interiors that you have to be a serious enthusiast of contemporary art to recognise what you're passing in the hallways.


I've always chosen each onsen ryokan I've stayed in with great care, so I've had very good experiences in all. 

And each place is so different that it's impossible to compare one with another.

It's like comparing apples with oranges, so it's better to appreciate each ryokan on its own merits, as long as these are in the same general category.


Jacques Chirac stayed in this very same suite

Nevertheless, this ryokan I'm staying in tonight is certainly something else. It's in a class of its own.

I'm in good company as well as many dignitaries from around the world -- not to mention, Japan -- have stayed here.

In fact, former French president Jacques Chirac is just one of the dozens of famous people who have stayed in this very suite that I am writing this blog from.


Join us for 
a Travelife to Japan 2015

The ultimate Tokyo & Yokohama food trip
June 6 to 11, 2015

Make mine Hokkaido
July 3 to 8, 2015

The hidden Japan
August 29 to September 3, 2015

Email for more details.



And yesterday, after checking in, we went for a stroll to the old town, which the Taisho Emperor of Japan once used to frequent, as the Imperial family of Japan once had their summer home here.

I took this photo of a tourist taking a photo
in the bamboo forest yesterday, living a Travelife
We walked through a bamboo forest and then along a river lined with ancient ryokan and spectacular autumn foliage -- the entire time marveling at how lucky we were that we had timed our visit so perfectly to catch the autumn colors in this part of Japan at its loveliest peak, on just another wonderful weekend in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.

Manila, see you soon.

One of the most beautiful onsen ryokan in Japan. And about the last five weeks in Japan, the Philippines and Morocco.

Good evening from one of the loveliest onsen ryokan in Japan, living a Travelife.

I've stayed in some of the nicest hotels and inns in Japan over two decades, but I have to say that this is among the loveliest yet.

It's quite simple in design, but everything is in exceedingly good taste and, aesthetics-wise, it's flawless.

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It helps, too, that this famous hot springs inn has great history and an owner with an artistic bent, plus an ancient wooden structure on its grounds and right in front of my three-room suite, so that I can  enjoy the view of it even from my private pool.

This is my third onsen ryokan in something like five weeks, and my fifth one since September. It's so addicting.


Join us for 
a Travelife to Japan 2015

The ultimate Tokyo & Yokohama food trip
June 6 to 11, 2015

Make mine Hokkaido
July 3 to 8, 2015

The hidden Japan
August 29 to September 3, 2015

Email for more details.


In fact, I was looking at an onsen book in Japanese with the most wonderful places this afternoon, and I was thinking about where to go next when I have an opportunity.

I'm hoping that plans fall into place for another hot springs trip in January.


The onsen waters are just wonderful and very relaxing, and it's so nice to just sit down to a lovely meal and enjoy calm surroundings and perfect service.

Five weeks ago, I stayed in two onsen ryokan in Hokkaido.

One of the onsen had clear waters and no smell, while the other was full of sulphur. Both were very nice in their own way and incredibly relaxing.

Tonight's onsen is also clear waters and no smell, but it's so alkaline that I felt a big difference from the very first dip into the pool.


In Hokkaido five weeks ago,
living a Travelife

And while I was taking a second dip after dinner tonight, I marvelled at how my last five weeks have been. 

I began with a couple of Michelin-starred meals in Tokyo and then journeyed on to snow and autumn leaves in hot springs towns in Hokkaido.

In Morocco until last Sunday
with some of our Travelife Magazine readers and friends

Then I went on to a busy Manila life, a beach weekend, about eight days exploring the ancient cities of Morocco with Travelife Magazine readers and friends, as well as visiting some of Morocco's best restaurants and hotels.


"Best trip ever."

Join the next Travelife to Morocco
April 18 - 27, 2015


And then I had an overnight stay in Doha and a flight halfway across the world to Tokyo onboard the marvellous Dreamliner.

The Dreamliner to Tokyo a few days ago


Now here I am in Japan once more, this time by the sea, with a centuries-old national monument in front of me as I have a 13-course gastronomic dinner in one of Japan's top hot springs inns.

And I've come here just in time to enjoy the peak of the autumn leaves in this part of Japan.

Talk about full circle with the autumn leaves in Japan here, as I first saw the autumn leaves in Hokkaido five weeks ago, and now I'm catching the last of the autumn leaves here in the Chubu region of Japan.

All of this in the last five weeks, living a truly never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Headed for a hot springs inn in central Japan with a lunch stopover for sushi. And about the "American President."

Today in Tokyo, living a Travelife, I ended the day watching my all-time feel-good movie.

Someone had borrowed it for me and I hadn't seen it in a long time, so I decided to watch it until I felt like finally going to sleep, since I'm still trying to get out of Morocco time.

The movie is "American President" starring Annette Benning and Michael Douglas, with a very good supporting cast. This movie must be at least 20 years old, but I realised I still liked it after all these years.

I really like Michael Douglas in this film, and the script is excellent, especially if you like political stories and a bit of romance.

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Then tomorrow I'm getting up early and heading towards the central part of Japan to stay at a hot springs inn that I've been wanting to stay at for the longest time.

This hot springs inn is considered among the top ryokan in the Kanto region, but I've never managed to get there because it's about 2.5 hours by car.

My personal tolerance for car rides is about 1.5 hours under normal circumstances. Anything longer than this and I'm looking at planes and bullet trains as options.


And if I'm just getting on an airplane, the options get far wider and I prefer to make the plane ride worth it.

I always tend to head out to distances that matter such as Hokkaido or the Japan Sea Coast in the north, or to Kyushu in the south.

All these areas have pretty gorgeous hot springs inns, and there are still many truly good ryokan that I have not been to.


But as this is the only world-class ryokan I still have not been to within my idea of driving distance from Tokyo, someone talked me into it with the promise of good company and an excellent sushi lunch along the way.

I wasn't going to drive either, so this seemed acceptable enough.

The midway point from Tokyo to this ryokan is a large town that's famous for fish in this part of Japan, and apparently this sushi restaurant is worth driving long distances for.

I'll know tomorrow. But if this is so, this will be the second time I'm going the distance for good sushi in a matter of weeks.


Last month, the Travel Companion and I flew to Hokkaido and then we traveled just over 90 minutes in a car to go to the best sushi restaurant in a town called Otaru.

We weren't disappointed either. We'd had 19 pieces of sushi each, and there was not one mediocre sushi among these. We also had a couple of new types of sushi, local to the area.


The best part was the bill at the end, which was apparently so reasonable to the Travel Companion that he thought he was being given a bill for parking and that the sushi bill for two would come later.



As for the sushi tomorrow, I certainly have high hopes. 

I'll let you know how it turns out and whether it will make a lunch good enough to write about in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.

Staying at the beautiful Palais Amani in Fes, on two trips to Morocco

Breakfast at the Palais Amani in Fes,
living a Travelife

This year, I visited Morocco twice on two equally wonderful trips, living a Travelife.

This is no mean feat, as it's about nine hours to the Middle East from Asia, and then another eight hours or so to Casablanca from the Middle East, not factoring in waiting time at airports in transit.

But I'm so happy I went twice as both trips were wonderful, and each was slightly different in terms of the things we did and the places we went to.

Although on both trips, I tried to get in as much spa time as possible.


The ladies at the Carita spa
in Marrakech

In June, I tried out the spa of the Four Seasons Marrakech and the Royal Mansour, as we stayed in both of these beautiful hotels.

Meanwhile, on this last trip, I did a hammam experience at the Palais Amani and at the pretty exclusive Palais Namaskar in Marrakech.

Then I also tried out a massage at the Carita spa of the Jardin du Koutubia, which is also in Marrakech. I have to say, I've never had a lousy massage yet in Morocco, living a Travelife.

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In June, the Travel Companion and I went on holiday to Morocco for about two weeks.

This was a really happy trip that involved stays in some pretty amazing places and experiences that pushed boundaries. We've been to many places together that can be considered the "middle of nowhere," including to the absolutely deserted Selous game reserve in Tanzania last year and to a lake with no one around in Hokkaido last month.

In Hokkaido last month

But in Morocco last June, this trip to the Greater Sahara was certainly pretty adventurous.

On this trip, we traveled five hours or so out of Marrakech, over the Atlas Mountains and towards the Sahara Desert, for a stay in a luxurious kasbah in the middle of nowhere.

This was literally in the middle of nowhere,
but still living a Travelife...

We had to leave our car and driver at a gas station in this middle of nowhere to switch to a 4WD sent over by the kasbah. And then we drove for about 20 minutes through dessert interspersed with mudhouses and ruins.

Then this kasbah just pops up dramatically on the horizon, straight out of an interior design magazine, and complete with sweets from Pierre Herme. It literally blew our minds away.

At the Palais Amani in Fes
last June, living a Travelife


We'd never experienced anything like this -- not to mention the fact that this kasbah was so beautifully decorated that it looked like it had just been featured in Architectural Digest.

It probably has been.

From here we explored part of the road famous for its 1001 kasbahs, and enjoyed sunset drinks on top of a mountain overlooking into vast nothing-ness.

I loved this afternoon we spent driving along the famous road of 1001 kasbahs, and then stopping wherever we felt like, to see one of these kasbahs.


Farewell dinner last Sunday
in Marrakech
with Travelife Magazine readers and friends

Meanwhile, until last weekend, I was in Morocco again for just over a week with a wonderful group of Travelife Magazine readers and friends.

This time, I kept some of the hotels and restaurants from my holiday in June, and also put in new places.

I really enjoyed the variety of these two trips.


"Best trip ever."

Join the next Travelife to Morocco
April 18 - 27, 2015



One place I kept for both trips was the hotel in Fes.

In June, we'd stayed at a stylish and understated riad in the heart of the old town called the Palais Amani.

It's a jewel of a riad that's a favourite among travellers in the know.

At the Palais Amani in Fes
last June, living a Travelife

We so enjoyed our stay here and we'd even arranged for a private cooking class with the Palais Amani chef, that involved visiting the food markets with him and then cooking our own three-course Moroccan meal in the kitchen.

It was lots of fun, and I have great photos of the Travel Companion wearing an apron and actually cooking a tagine, which unfortunately I can't post.

Excellent Moroccan pancake breakfast
at the Palais Amani


Last week, I was back at the Palais Amani again with our group of Travelife Magazine readers and friends. 

I told them, before we reached the Palais Amani: "We're going to walk through a very nondescript alley and go through an equally nondescript door. Don't get shocked."

That's how understated this place is. And that's true for many lovely riads in Fes and Marrakech.

The dressing room of my suite
at the Palais Amani
overlooked the gardens and hills of Fes

Everyone loved it for the same reasons we did back in June.

I also arranged for a cooking class for the group, which turned out to be a great success.




And after the cooking class, we all sat down to a pretty table on the roof terrace to eat what they'd cooked.

The group had made an eggplant dish to start, followed by a delicious chicken tagine with preserved lemons, and a simple but ever so delicious orange and cinnamon dessert.

It was already winter in Morocco last week, but the weather on that day was sufficiently warm, so that we could sit outside for a long and leisurely lunch, with everyone happily living a very eventful Travelife.